By Tara Mastroeni, Contributor, Forbes
If you're a homeowner or aiming to be one someday soon, you probably know that having home equity is a good thing. However, beyond that, many people start to lose track. That's why we've taken it upon ourselves to solve the mystery of home equity once and for all. Read on to learn what it is, how it works, and how you can use it to your advantage.
What is home equity?
Put simply, home equity is the percentage of your home that you own outright. While you're always considered to be the owner of your home, if you took out a mortgage to buy it, the fact is that your lender also has an interest in the property. Over time, as you pay down your mortgage, the lender's interest in your home shrinks and your home equity grows.
However, you can also grow your home equity in another way. You can do it by increasing the overall value of your home. This can happen by either living in an area with rising property values or by making substantial improvements to the property that will increase its resale value.
How to use your home equity
The good news is that, once you build it up, you can use your home equity to your advantage. When people talk about real estate being an asset, they mean that building home equity is a way to leverage wealth. Here are a few things that you can do with it.
Home equity loan
Home equity loans are often referred to as second mortgages because the two loans function very similarly. A home loan disburses the funds from the loan in one lump sum, much like what happened when you bought your home in the first place. From there, you'll be responsible for making regular, monthly payments to pay back the money you borrowed.
With a home equity loan, you're borrowing against the equity you've built up in your home so the amount that you're allowed to borrow may be limited by how much progress you've made in paying down your mortgage. Typically, lenders will insist that you maintain at least a 15%-20% ownership stake in your home at all times.
One benefit of borrowing against your home equity is that you can often do so at a much lower interest rate than credit cards or personal loans. That's why many people use this option to pay for big-ticket expenses like home remodels, paying off medical debt, or financing a child's college education.
Home equity line of credit
Home equity lines of credit are similar to home equity loans in that you're still borrowing against the equity in your home. However, the disbursement and fee structure couldn't be more different. With home equity lines of credit, the loan is divided into two distinct pay periods: the draw period and the repayment period.
During the draw period, your home equity line of credit acts a lot like a credit card. You can draw on the equity in your home whenever you see fit. During this time, you'll likely only have to make payments on the interest accrued by your purchases.
After a specified amount of time, you'll enter the repayment period. During the repayment period, you'll no longer be able to draw funds from your home equity. You'll also have to start making payments on both the principal and interest of what you've borrowed.
Traditionally, with a refinance, you take out a new loan - usually one with better terms - to pay off and replace your old one. With a cash-out refinance, things work a little differently. In this case, you borrow more than what you owe and receive the difference in funds, which can be used as you see fit.
Here, the amount that you can borrow above what you currently owe is determined by how much equity you have in your home. Usually, you can borrow up to 85% or 90% of your home's value.
Move into something bigger
The most traditional way to use added home equity is to sell your house to buy something bigger. When you sell your home, you'll most likely use some of the proceeds from the sale to pay off the remainder of your mortgage. However, if there is any difference between the sale price on your home and the amount you still owe, it comes to you as profit. That profit can then be used to buy a bigger home and leverage your home equity even further.
How to figure out how much equity you have
Figuring out how much equity you've built up in your home is easy. All you need to know is what your home is worth and what you owe on your mortgage. You can find out exactly how much your home is worth by having an appraisal done or you can get an approximate figure by having a real estate agent prepare a comparative market analysis. Online valuation tools are also an option, but they may not always be accurate.
Once you have that information in hand, subtract the amount that you owe on your mortgage from the value of your home. The remainder is your home equity.